It was already Tuesday in Sydney, Australia, but Jessica Pegula was watching “Monday Night Football” on her phone on Jan. 3 as she waited to go onto the court at the United Cup. Suddenly, she felt the same sickening fear many football fans had that day, but perhaps with more resonance.On her small device, she witnessed Damar Hamlin, a safety for the Buffalo Bills, collapsing on the turf and saw the frantic moments as paramedics attempted to revive him and bundled him into an ambulance after his heart stopped beating.
She knew how critical each one of those seconds was for Hamlin, who eventually made a remarkable recovery. Her mother, Kim Pegula, who is the president and an owner of the Bills, along with her husband, Terry Pegula, went into cardiac arrest in her sleep a little over a year ago. Kim Pegula’s recovery has been a slow, difficult process, made more challenging by the loss of oxygen when it happened.Jessica Pegula was so shaken that she considered not playing in the United Cup, but she eventually did. Days later, at the Australian Open, she wore a No. 3 patch on her outfit to honor Hamlin. Coincidentally, No. 3 was her singles ranking at the time, an astonishing achievement considering everything she had been through in the previous six months.
The family sat vigil at Kim Pegula’s hospital bedside for days last June. Jessica left to play at Wimbledon with a jumble of emotions but also with the knowledge that it was what her mother wanted. Riddled with worry, worn down from the previous weeks and saddled with a sinus infection, she lost in the third round.But somehow, as her mother made steady progress, Pegula continued to play the best tennis of her career at age 28 (she turned 29 in February). She reached a semifinal of the Canadian Open and, for the first time, a quarterfinal of the U.S. Open — her third major quarterfinal of the year. She won the Guadalajara, Mexico, event last October and, in January, reached another quarterfinal at the Australian Open. At No. 4 in the world, she is the top-ranked American woman.On Sunday, she checked off another quarterfinal appearance when she demolished Lesia Tsurenko, in straight sets. She has now reached the quarterfinal stage at each of the four major tournaments. But for the sixth time in six tries, her pursuit of her first Grand Slam semifinal was blocked. She fell two games short, as Marketa Vondrousova came back from a 1-4 deficit in the third set to beat Pegula, 6-4, 2-6, 6-4, on Tuesday.
It was as close as Pegula has come to making a major semifinal and, considering how close she was, it was crushing. But it was just tennis, and later she took comfort in reflecting on how different she felt at this Wimbledon compared with last year’s, which came just a few weeks after her mother fell ill.“A year ago when I came here, I didn’t have any warm up,” she said. “My mom basically almost died. I think a year coming around to make quarters, to see that she’s able to watch my match, was a huge success for myself and for my family.Still, it has been difficult traveling during these last 12 months and being away from her mother, who urges Pegula to fight on, just as she has.
Pegula explained how her mother, who with Terry Pegula also owns the N.H.L.’s Buffalo Sabres, helped shape her tennis career without being overbearing. She said her mother had mostly left the tennis to others but had helped brainstorm ideas to help her get better and to navigate the complex and unforgiving world of professional tennis. She always took inspiration from her mother’s example of hard work and independent strength. Now, she says, her mother is taking inspiration from watching her on the court.In an article in The Players’ Tribune in February, Pegula first revealed the events surrounding her mother’s illness and recovery, and outlined how she was playing on for her. On Sunday, after her fourth-round win, she spoke of the strength and motivation each was drawing from the other.
“She wants to watch me on TV,” Jessica Pegula said Sunday. “I think that inspires her in her recovery, as well, to see me out there still playing.And, despite Tuesday’s loss, playing well. Now healthy after injuries disrupted her progression through the ranks, Pegula has cashed in on consistency, her current No. 4 ranking tucking her in just behind the newly crowned Big Three of No. 1 Iga Swiatek, No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka and No. 3 Elena Rybakina.
Pegula expresses no outward resentment that she is not included in their ranks, but she makes it clear that she is striving to shake up the perception that the top of the women’s tour is a triad.“I would definitely love to crash the Big Three party, if possible,” she said. “That would definitely be a goal. I mean, those girls have been playing really well.All of those women are at least four years younger than Pegula. She was asked if experience had led to her recent success, but she insisted that health had been more important. Her career has been stalled by a knee injury and hip surgery, and being in the gym rehabilitating is an experience that differs from on-court matches.
She also said her consistency was no accident. When she reached her first major quarterfinal, at the Australian Open in 2021, she was determined not to leave it all to waste in the subsequent tournament in Doha, Qatar. She was ranked 44th at the time and had to win three qualifying rounds to enter that event, and ended up capturing six consecutive matches before falling in the final to No. 4 Petra Kvitova.“I don’t want to be that person that made the quarters of a Slam and then loses first round,” she said, and added, “I took a lot of confidence from that.
She has now reached the quarterfinals in five of the last seven Grand Slam events and is only the fifth American to reach the quarters at all four majors in the last 25 years, joining Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, who made a quarterfinal on Monday by beating the 16-year-old Russian phenomenon Mirra Andreeva in three sets. Keys is scheduled to face Sabalenka on Wednesday.But the semifinal stage remains elusive for Pegula, and she could not say why.
“I was one game away today, almost,” she said. “I don’t really know what the answer is. I keep putting myself in good positions. But I guess it’s not enough.A few hours after her loss to Vondrousova, Pegula lost again in her doubles match. She and Coco Gauff fell to Laura Siegemund and Vera Zvonareva, making it a perfectly miserable day. But she will return to the United States and, if time allows, see her mother. Soon enough, with the hardcourt season underway, she will be playing again, with Kim Pegula watching from home, and that is a great victory.“She wouldn’t want me doing anything else,” Pegula said of her mother. “I think she would want me to keep winning and to keep competing and putting myself out there.